Thursday, September 24, 2009

Zoe update

Somebody asked for an update on Zoe and I'm happy to oblige! I have had no major agenda for her this year as she is in limbo waiting for her next job offer. So we just go day to day without much excitement and I hope that her mind is letting down as much as her body is. She knows enough about her head-down exercise to offer it to me when she is bored and I go in her stall. This is really a huge bonus- she's a mare who knows how to be very expressive to get attention so for her to offer calmness as an attention getter is pretty impressive. I reward her when I can with attention in some form. It might just be few moments of rubbing her face, or I'll go and get her grooming mitt and give her a body massage, or I'll grab some treats and we'll do some duration work with head down. My aim is to keep life peaceful for her- and have her learn to enjoy that peace rather than feeling like she needs to stir up some excitement.

She loves to be out and grazing and there were a couple times this summer when turnout time presented some opportunities for clicker training. In the heat of the summer, I turn out as early as I can in the morning and then try to bring them in before the bugs get bad. I didn't always guess correctly about when the bugs were bad and that meant she would be in a bit of a panic by the time I got there. This stresses me out because we are obsessive about the grass in our paddocks and I hate seeing horses running up and down a fenceline destroying the grass. So I wasn't always happy with her by the time I got to her and it took some time for us to work through our combined angst.

Traditionally, a chain over her nose kept her in line but that is a management solution- gets us through a moment but does nothing toward changing her future behavior. I would like to write about this as a future post in and of itself. The chain also had a tendency to make her want to walk on her hind legs. She was trapped between wanting to go forward fast and the chain so the option was up. Now I have to admit that Zoe is about the safest horse on the farm to handle. She can be leaping all about but she is very very careful as well as talented so you really don't get the impression that you are going to get hurt. But having her rear next to me on a side hill was still a little unnerving and unnecessary.

The challenge with Thoroughbreds is that food is not always a high priority for them and movement can be more rewarding than a food treat. With clicker training, you always need to be aware of what is motivating and reinforcing for your learner. So for Zoe when the bugs were eating her alive, her biggest reinforcement was to get in her stall away from the bugs! Standing still was basically a punishment. I would put her halter on as quickly as possible (not always easy as she danced around) and ask for a split second of standing still. With that split second of self control, I would click. Now, the click ends the behavior, so if she then moved right off, that was OK. Generally I wouldn't allow that because I want them to back up for their treat for general manners. But Zoe's food manners are exceptional and that wasn't the issue here. The goal was to teach her that by showing a little self control, she would get inside sooner. I do have a contract with all my horses that click=treat so even though the treat wasn't her highest reward (moving was), I did offer her a treat with each click. She would take it but I also made sure that she was getting closer to her stall at the same time. Then, as long as she walked next to me, I would walk as quickly as I could to keep up with her (and she can walk FAST!). If she broke into a jig, or pushed into my space at all around a corner, I would slide down the rope with my left hand until I reached the snap of her lead, stand firm and let her forward energy ricochet her back out of my space. For details of this whole process, refer to Alex Kurland's T'ai Chi wall exercises. That was a correction, so there was no C/T for that. So she was learning that jigging did not get her to her stall sooner; it slowed her progress. However, if she took a couple nice quiet steps next to me, I would C/T, again not worrying too much about her stopping for the treat (as opposed to just about any other situation where I would insist on that). Stopping was a punishment- I didn't want to click and then punish her! Over a period of about a week, we made tremendous progress. Granted, the bugs weren't an issue every day so the days when she was quiet offered me an opportunity to ask her to quietly halt on the way in and C/T that, as well as standing for longer than a split second. But when her poor little thin skin was being chewed on by an army of bugs, then I did everything I could to get her in as soon as possible as a reward for a little self control at the end of the rope.

A couple weeks after that, we were practicing the same thing going TO the pasture in the morning. Cool mornings came and she wanted to get out as quickly as possible and blow off a little steam. In this instance, I was less tolerant of her impatience. She wasn't physically being tormented by an outside force (bugs) but by her own energy level. So as I led her out, she had to walk quietly next to me and any time she got ahead of me whether in a fast walk by breaking into a little jig, I would slide down the lead and make her back up. We had a bit of a setback because on these particular days we had a steep hill to go down and the grass was slippery in the early mornings. As a result, I wasn't always as coordinated as I needed to be and twice, she reared and the lead was so short that it was pulled out of my hand so she got a nice gallop around all the paddocks as a reward for rearing. Not good. I found a longer lead rope, was able to let her rear and still have hold when she came back down, ask her to back up, then proceeded.

Reading this makes it sound like she's a totally berserk mare who gets away with murder. But really she's a sweetheart with an incredible amount of exuberance. In the past, punishment or the threat of it kept her in line- a chain over her nose, yanking on her lead, etc. But what I was after- and got- was for her to walk calmly regardless of bugs or cool brisk mornings and be responsible for controlling herself. No chain, no yelling, just quiet controlled compliance. Because I trusted her to be careful with me even in her wildness, I was able to ignore the bad behavior- the rearing- and just reinforce the good. Had I felt she was dangerous- to me or herself, I might have had to take a different approach.

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